Speechless sets itself apart about three minutes into its first episode, and not just because one of its lead characters has a disability (though that’s definitely part of it).
The premiere of ABC’s new fall comedy — about a close-knit family defying anyone to give their son with cerebral palsy any shit, ever — does something very simple, but deceptively difficult: It makes all of its characters specific.
Many family sitcoms embrace the tropes they’re expected to embrace: uptight mom, cool guy dad, brainy son, ruthless teen girl. But the boring ones will stop the characterization at those flat descriptions, letting the familiar clichés carry the jokes.
The great thing about Speechless — created by former Friends writer and producer Scott Silveri — is that it manages to draft off these stereotypes while giving the resulting characters real motivations and actual personality traits. That’s what shades them beyond a collection of basic descriptors and makes them feel like real people.
Maya Dimeo (a fantastically wry Minnie Driver) is the hell-on-wheels matriarch who insists on getting her way. Her strict no-bullshit policy clashes especially loudly with the fancy Newport school she and her family tour in Speechless’s pilot. Just because the school has more resources to accommodate her son’s needs — and is desperately trying to prove how progressive it is at all times — doesn’t mean she’s going to let its administrators off easy.
Maya’s aggressiveness could grate with a less-skilled actor or a weaker script. But in Speechless, it very quickly becomes clear that her stubbornness comes from a deep love and fierce protectiveness for her kids.
Not only that, but when her precocious and nervous son Ray (Mason Cook) calls her out on having disproportionate priorities, accusing her of putting his disabled brother first to the detriment of her other kids, Ray and Maya have a real, even ugly, fight. It’s the kind of situation parents and kids face all the time, but that family comedies don’t tend to tackle until they’re several episodes in and both the show’s writers and viewers know how all the elements of the show work.
Sitcoms usually need time for their casts and writers to gel before they really click, but five minutes into Speechless, Ray and his dad (John Ross Bowie) are having a heart-to-heart out in the neighborhood, sitting in their parked car, watching and cheering as oblivious strangers drive down a steep hill and scrape their cars against the pavement in showers of sparks. It’s such a particular scene that in an instant, you know exactly what their relationship is like.
But the best example of how Speechless goes above and beyond the same things you’ve seen a million times before is J.J., the teen boy with cerebral palsy who anchors the show.
J.J. is played by the very sharp Micah Fowler, who actually has cerebral palsy in real life. Since it’s still incredibly rare for media to cast actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities, giving Fowler the opportunity to portray J.J. is a notable (and encouraging!) choice.
And he’s wonderful in the part, not least because J.J.’s personality doesn’t start and end with his cerebral palsy. J.J. has very little patience when his new school keeps trying to put him on a pedestal. He’s sarcastic, mischievous, and even a little mean when he thinks someone’s stupidity deserves it.
Most importantly, J.J. — like almost every teen — just wants to be cool.
There are hundreds of family sitcoms out there, but with empathetic (and very funny) characters at its heart, Speechless is already a standout.
Speechless premieres September 21 at 8:30 pm on ABC, but you can watch the pilot episode right now on Hulu.